Lessons in the snow

Sunday, February 21, 2010

THE SNOW that shut down the Washington area for much of this month is beginning to melt. Before long, believe it or not, daffodils will be poking up. But it's important that regional leaders not move on without assessing and learning from their performance during the storms.

Given the unusual amount of snow -- Washington has had more of the stuff this season than Buffalo -- area residents, while inconvenienced, came through fairly unscathed. There were few deaths, and vulnerable populations, such as the homeless and those with medical needs, received special attention. Government snow-removal crews, aided by private contractors, did a credible and, in some cases, a heroic job. The trick to snow removal is to get equipment out early and work steadily, and that seemed to be the norm across the region. Moreover, we tend to agree with those who say that it doesn't make fiscal sense for governments to buy equipment that will be needed once or twice a century.

None of that means, though, that improvement is impossible. In the debate about what could have been done differently, two issues must be addressed.

Foremost is the collective stake that everyone has in Metro's ability to operate complete rail service. The closure of outside rail service helped force the federal government to close for most of a week. We understand the technical problems that Metro faces when there is more than eight inches of snow, but this should be a solvable problem. Officials need to examine what additional resources, capital or technology would help Metro recover more quickly.

Second, could the federal government not do more to help out? As Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) wrote in a letter to Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr., more than 40 percent of federal employees depend on the Metro system. Federal officials say that tens of millions of dollars in forgone productivity are lost each day the government is closed, so wouldn't it be prudent to help keep Metro operational?

Critics who suggest that there would have been better results if Mayor Adrian M. Fenty had sought a federal designation of emergency earlier don't understand the limited federal role. It is largely supportive and after the fact; it can help pay the bills but not clear the streets. Still, the relationship between the federal government and its host region bears further scrutiny, as evidenced by the premature decision to reopen the federal government Feb. 12.

There are other issues, such as whether jurisdictions should impose alternate side-street parking on residential streets to make it easier to plow; how to do a better job of clearing sidewalks and bus stops, and how to give residents accurate information about when they can expect to have their roads cleared. Some officials told us there is not enough use of technology to solve problems, and clearly some officials (Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley) did a better job of managing the public's expectations than others (Mr. Fenty). The D.C. Council will hold a special oversight hearing, and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments has scheduled a regional after-snow conference of public- and private-sector representatives for March. These and other reviews should produce a public accounting of lessons learned.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company